The American Democrat/On Demagogues

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A demagogue, in the strict signification of the word, is "a leader of the rabble." It is a Greek compound, that conveys this meaning. In these later times, however, the signification has been extended to suit the circumstances of the age. Thus, before the art of printing became known, or cheap publications were placed within the reach of the majority, the mass of all nations might properly enough be termed a rabble, when assembled in bodies. In nations in which attention is paid to education, this reproach is gradually becoming unjust, though a body of Americans, even, collected under what is popularly termed an "excitement," losing sight of that reason and respect for their own deliberately framed ordinances, which alone distinguish them from the masses of other people, is neither more nor less than a rabble. Men properly derive their designations from their acts, and not from their professions.

The peculiar office of a demogogue is to advance his own interests, by affecting a deep devotion to the interests of the people. Sometimes the object is to indulge malignancy, unprincipled and selfish men submitting but to two governing motives, that of doing good to themselves, and that of doing harm to others. The true theatre of a demagogue is a democracy, for the body of the community possessing the power, the master he pretends to serve is best able to reward his efforts. As it is all important to distinguish between those who labor in behalf of the people on the general account, and those who labor in behalf of the people on their own account, some of the rules by which each may be known shall be pointed out.

The motive of the demagogue may usually be detected in his conduct. The man who is constantly telling the people that they are unerring in judgment, and that they have all power, is a demagogue. Bodies of men being composed of individuals, can no more be raised above the commission of error, than individuals themselves, and, in many situations, they are more likely to err, from self-excitement and the division of responsibility. The power of the people is limited by the fundamental laws, or the constitution, the rights and opinions of the minority, in all but those cases in which a decision becomes indispensable, being just as sacred as the rights and opinions of the majority; else would a democracy be, indeed, what its enemies term it, the worst species of tyranny. In this instance, the people are flattered, in order to be led; as in kingdoms, the prince is blinded to his own defects, in order to extract favor from him.

The demagogue always puts the people before the constitution and the laws, in face of the obvious truth that the people have placed the constitution and the laws before themselves.

The local demagogue does not distinguish between the whole people and a part of the people, and is apt to betray his want of principles by contending for fancied, or assumed rights, in favor of a county, or a town, though the act is obviously opposed to the will of the nation. This is a test that the most often betrays the demagogue, for while loudest in proclaiming his devotion to the majority, he is, in truth, opposing the will of the entire people, in order to effect his purposes with a part.

The demagogue is usually sly, a detractor of others, a professor of humility and disinterestedness, a great stickler for equality as respects all above him, a man who acts in corners, and avoids open and manly expositions of his course, calls blackguards gentlemen, and gentlemen folks, appeals to passions and prejudices rather than to reason, and is in all respects, a man of intrigue and deception, of sly cunning and management, instead of manifesting the frank, fearless qualities of the democracy he so prodigally professes.

The man who maintains the rights of the people on pure grounds, may be distinguished from the demagogue by the reverse of all these qualities. He does not flatter the people, even while he defends them, for he knows that flattery is a corrupting and dangerous poison. Having nothing to conceal, he is frank and fearless, as are all men with the consciousness of right motives. He oftener chides than commends, for power needs reproof and can dispense with praise.

He who would be a courtier under a king, is almost certain to be a demagogue in a democracy. The elements are the same, though, brought into action under different circumstances, ordinary observers are apt to fancy them the extremes of opposite moral castes. Travellers have often remarked, that, Americans, who have made themselves conspicuous abroad for their adulation of rank and power, have become zealous advocates of popular supremacy, on returning home. Several men of this stamp are, at this moment, in conspicuous political stations in the country, having succeeded by the commonest arts of courtiers.

There is a large class of political men in this country, who, while they scarcely merit the opprobium of being termed demagogues, are not properly exempt from the imputation of falling into some of their most dangerous vices. These are they, whose habits, and tastes, and better opinions, indeed, are all at variance with vulgar errors and vulgar practices, but, who imagine it a necessary evil in a democracy to defer to prejudices, and ignorance, and even to popular jealousies and popular injustice, that a safe direction may be given to the publick mind. Such men deceive themselves, in the first place, as to their own motives, which are rather their private advancement than the publick good, and, admitting the motives to be pure, they err greatly both in their mode of construing the system under which they live, and in the general principles of correcting evil and of producing good. As the greatest enemy of truth is falsehood, so is the most potent master of falsehood, truth. These qualities are correlatives; that which is not true, being false; and that which is not false, being true. It follows, as a pervading rule of morals, that the advancement of one is the surest means of defeating the other. All good men desire the truth, and, on all publick occasions on which it is necessary to act at all, the truth would be the most certain, efficient, and durable agency in defeating falsehoods, whether of prejudices, reports, or principles. The perception of truth is an attribute of reason, and the ground-work of all institutions that claim to be founded in justice, is this high quality. Temporary convenience, and selfish considerations, beyond a doubt, are both favored by sometimes closing the eyes to the severity of truth, but in nothing is the sublime admonition of God in his commandments, where he tells us that he "will visit the sins of the fathers unto the third and fourth generations of their children," more impressively verified, than in the inevitable punishments that await every sacrifice of truth.

Most of the political men of the day belong to this class of doubtful moralists, who, mistaking a healthful rule, which admonishes us that even truth ought not to be too offensively urged, in their desire to be moderate, lend themselves to the side of error. The ingenuity of sophisms, and the audacity of falsehoods receive great support from this mistaken alliance, since a firm union of all the intelligent of a country, in the cause of plain and obvious truths, would exterminate their correlative errors, the publick opinion which is now enlisted in the support of the latter, following to the right side, as a matter of course, in the train of combined knowledge. This is the mode in which opinions rooted in the wrong have been gradually eradicated, by the process of time, but which would yield faster, were it not for the latitude and delusion that selfishness imposes on men of this class, who flatter themselves with soothing a sore that they are actually irritating. The consequence of this mistaken forbearance, is to substitute a new set of errors, for those which it has already taken ages to get rid of.

On the subject of government and society, it is a misfortune that this country is filled with those who take the opposite extremes, the one side clinging to prejudices that were founded in the abuses of the feudal times, and the other to the exaggerations of impracticable theories. That the struggle is not fiercer, is probably owing to the overwhelming numbers of the latter class, but, as things are, truth is a sufferer.

The American doctrinaire is the converse of the American demagogue, and, in his way, is scarcely less injurious to the publick. He is as much a visionary on one side, as the extreme theoretical democrat is a visionary on the other. The first deals in poetry, the last in cant. The first affirms a disinterestedness and purity in education and manners, when exposed to the corruption of power, that all experience refutes; and the last an infallibility in majorities that God himself has denied. These opposing classes produce the effect of all counter-acting forces, resistance, and they provoke each other's excesses.

In the doctrinaire, or theorist of the old school, we see men clinging to opinions that are purely the issue of arbitrary facts, ages after the facts themselves have ceased to exist, confounding cause with effect; and, in the demagogue, or his tool, the impracticable democrat, one who permits envy, jealousy, opposition, selfishness, and the unconsciousness of his own inferiority and demerits, so far to blind his faculties, as to obscure the sense of justice, to exclude the sight of positive things, and to cause him to deny the legitimate consequences of the very laws of which he professes to be proud. This is the dupe who affirms that, "one man is as good as another."

These extremes lead to the usual inconsistencies and follies. Thus do we see men, who sigh for titles and factitious and false distinctions, so little conscious of truth, as to shrink from asserting the real distinctions of their social station, or those, they actually and undeniably possess; as if nature ever intended a man for an aristocrat, who has not the manhood to maintain his just rights; and those, again, who cant of equality and general privileges, while they stubbornly refuse to permit others to enjoy in peace a single fancied indulgence or taste, unless taken in their company, although nature, education and habits have all unfitted them to participate, and their presence would be sure to defeat what they could not, in the nature of things, enjoy.

The considerate, and modest, and just-minded man, of whatever social class, will view all this differently. In asserting his own rights, he respects those of others; in indulging his own tastes, he is willing to admit there may be superior; in pursuing his own course, in his own manner, he knows his neighbor has an equal right to do the same; and, most of all, is he impressed with the great moral truths, that flatterers are inherently miscreants, that fallacies never fail to bring their punishments, and that the empire of God is reason.